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Kant’s Ethics. The Good, Freedom, and the Will.
Berlin u. a.: De Gruyter 2012. XI, 363 S. Geb. EUR 99,95. ISBN 978-1-61451-071-0.
James J. DiCenso
John Silber, who died in September 2012 a few months after this book was published, was one of the leading American Kant scholars focusing on ethics and religion in the 1960’s and 70’s. After becoming President of Boston University in 1971, followed by a term as Chancellor, he was less active as a scholar. However, in retirement after 2003 he reworked and expanded some of his most seminal essays from 1959-91 into this book publication, which establishes his legacy as a Kant scholar. It is, as he says, an attempt »to offer a comprehensive account of Kant’s ethics, drawing on the entirety of his work« (IX).
The book shows signs of its origins, in that many references are made to early or mid twentieth century scholarship now little discussed. Also, many of the citations from Kant draw on dated English translations, although S. works with the German originals and often modifies these translations. Seasoned Kant scholars will find too much emphasis on clarifying Kant’s basic ethical ideas and defending Kant against common misinterpretations, although even these sections are carefully wrought and still valuable. Overall, however, this is an insightful book that contains much of significance for those concerned with the lasting contributions of Kant’s ethical, political and religious thinking.
S. states that the chapters of the book address »a single theoretical problem« concerning how the individual can »know concretely and objectively […] what action is required or proscribed by the moral law« (9). Hence there is an unremitting emphasis on how we as fallible beings can apply and realize the moral law within interpersonal and social contexts, rather than on a merely theoretical explication of moral principles. The initial chapters rigorously establish what S. calls »the priority of moral philosophy« in Kant’s work (13.46 ff.), while explicating many of Kant’s central ethical concepts. A key issue that emerges from S.’s discussion of the highest good is that of establishing a non-heteronomous object of the will which, while »serving to guide moral action, would not destroy the freedom of the mortal agent« (62). This theme is very important for those concerned with the relation between Kant’s ethics and his inquiries into religion and theology. The next chapter (III), focusing on the will, therefore addresses Kant’s Religion as a key text in his ethical thinking (although it covers only Part I of the text). It is here, S. argues, that Kant develops an »ethical dynamics« dealing with our freedom to choose (Willkür) both good and evil (64 ff.). S. sees Kant’s approach as consistent with two key traditions: »Christian insight into the dark and irrational depths of human nature and, simultaneously, with Platonic confidence that freedom and obligation are both ultimately grounded in reason« (65). This conjunction of fallibility and freedom leads to an explication of the will, moral obligation, and the underlying issue of the disposition (Gesinnung) as the ultimate subjective ground of our maxims (100). S.’s inquiries into the indispensable notion of the disposition remain illuminating; as he summarizes, it is »the enduring aspect of Willkür […] considered in terms of the continuity and fullness of its free expression« (102). He shows how our power to choose can be directed by the rational will (Wille) and the moral law, yet also responds to phenomenal and heteronomous influences in its capacity to prioritize self-love and choose acts of evil. Although there has been a marked increase in the literature pertaining to these issues, S.’s approach is closely grounded in the texts and remains faithful to Kant’s thinking; it therefore stands as an important corrective to those contemporary views that abandon Kant’s focus on autonomy by turning to heteronomous supra-rational responses to evil.
This issue is developed through an explication of the difference between the moral good and natural goods (chapter IV), but chapter V is especially important, as it develops an analysis of the way in which for Kant »the concept of the good must be derived from the moral law rather than the reverse« (153 and cf. 167). The highest good is the whole which conjoins virtue and happiness, and we are obliged by the moral law to make »the highest good possible in the world« our final ends (168 f.). This gives »concrete direction to moral volition« and hence is critical to S.’s project of clarifying ethical obligation and judgment in context. Here he discusses Kant’s practical postulates of God, freedom, and immortality of the soul, stressing that »their meaning and significance must stem from the moral perspective on which their apprehension and the striving after them is grounded« (177). Importantly, slicing through the artificial paradoxes that still preoccupy many scholars, S. explicates how »the moral law obligates human beings to promote (rather than to attain) the highest good« (180). He therefore questions the logical necessity of the postulates of God and immortality of the soul, which are linked to the full realization of the highest good, and he cites Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft (AK V: 450–451) to show that »the moral law and its object are valid apart from God’s existence« (181, and cf. 186–188). Hence S. describes Kant’s »moral argument« as »confused« (186), and he concludes that »human potentiality is not increased by the introduction of God« (188). He further stresses, quite rightly, that »Kant never suggests, not even in a single passage, that moral responsibility can be grounded on anything other than human freedom« (190).
However, the question of the meaning of the postulates tends to disappear at this point, and is left hanging as seemingly nothing more than confusion on Kant’s part. Yet, later in the text this issue resurfaces in an illuminating way. S. develops a very important discussion of »the symbolic schematism of the highest good,« which links religious and teleological concepts to the task of introducing rational ethical ideas into experience (211 ff.) Subsequently S. argues, albeit briefly, that Kant’s moral argument »does not prove theoretically the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, but it establishes God and immortality as part of a context of coherence and meaning in the life of the individual« (285). The focus has turned from literally establishing the existence of supersen-sible objects to the value of religious discourse in promoting the highest good to be realized in the world.